In praise of Mike Ricci

06Nov07

Note: Joe over at Greatest Legends of Hockey asked some bloggers to reminisce about a retired player going into Hall of Fame weekend. This ain’t about a Hall of Famer, but sometimes you don’t need to be to win over a whole city.

That hair. That nose. That gap-toothed grin. Mike Ricci was nothing if not recognizable, but to San Jose Sharks fans, he was much more than a (not so) pretty face. Not the biggest, not the most skilled, and certainly not the best skater, Mike Ricci was the ultimate player’s player. Here was a guy who made his living on the boards and in the crease, taking crosschecks to the back and sticks to the face, and somehow the guy with the long hair sticking out of his helmet still managed to get the puck out.

The Ricci mystique really started over in Denver, where Avs fans named him the city’s sexiest athlete in 1997 after he helped the team win their first Stanley Cup. However, it was the trade to San Jose that really transformed Ricci from endearing grinder into the face of a franchise.

When Mike Ricci landed in San Jose, the team was in a transition period. Darryl Sutter had taken over behind the bench, and his influence went straight up into GM Dean Lombardi’s office. Sutter wanted a hard-nosed, gritty team that made life hell for opponents. While surly captain Owen Nolan epitomized what Sutter wanted (especially when Nolan was healthy and on top of his game), Ricci was the one who connected with the fans.

It really wasn’t just the hair. Sure, it helped to give a bit of a visual identity to the team, but it was more about what Ricci was willing to do to get the job done — which was pretty much damn near anything.

There aren’t many SportsCenter-worthy Mike Ricci highlights. He wasn’t a breakaway player or much of a deker. He did his job and he did it well; he shut down talented opponents by sound positional play and a feisty attitude, and he created offense by scratching and clawing to dig the puck out of the corner, often over to longtime linemate Scott Thornton.

There was a time when Ricci’s line was considered the best third line in hockey: Ricci, Thornton, and Niklas Sundstrom. This moniker wasn’t meant to be demeaning at all; in fact, quite the opposite. The Ricci line was often the best line on the ice for a Sharks team that fought inconsistency in its talent through the years (Nolan, Jeff Friesen, Patrick Marleau, Teemu Selanne), and that particular incarnation just happened to have that right-place-at-the-right time mix for success. Sundstrom’s passing abilities and defensive-awareness, Ricci’s tooth-and-nail feistiness, Thornton’s shot and power-forward abilities, all of those combined into some Darryl Sutter chemistry experiment that spelled out success. Ricci led the way, as he usually did, pumping his legs in his awkward skating style to give it his all every shift.

In the end, that’s probably why Sharks fans loved Mike Ricci so much. He never, ever left anything on the ice. He wasn’t a Hall of Famer and he didn’t care, he just wanted his team to win, and he’d do absolutely anything to get that done. When you saw Ricci fight for every inch of the ice, you just wondered why a lot of NHL players never, ever did that.

How much did Mike Ricci mean to San Jose? When long-time players come back for the first time in an opposing jersey, they may get a short video tribute during a TV timeout. For Ricci, who had endured in San Jose from the Nolan/Sutter days to the tumultuous Teemu Selanne era to the beginning of the Marleau/Ron Wilson (but not Joe Thornton) time, he was — and always will be — a favorite son for both the fans and the organization, and GM Doug Wilson let Ricci know this. When Ricci’s Phoenix Coyotes came into town, Ricci got a pre-game video tribute complete with a PA announcer and spotlight welcoming him back. Oh, and a long standing ovation from the San Jose faithful. Not even long-serving captain Owen Nolan got that on his return to the Shark Tank.

Think about it — an opposing player getting a pre-game lights-out spotlight-on bells-and-whistles tribute. That doesn’t happen if you’re not special to both the fans and the team.

Years from now, people will look at Ricci’s stats and wonder why he was drafted so high by Philadelphia. For those that saw him play, especially in San Jose, they’ll pity anyone who didn’t get a chance to admire the never-say-die spirit that Ricci embodied — a spirit that really should be at the core of every hockey player.

Oh, and the hair was pretty cool too.

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5 Responses to “In praise of Mike Ricci”

  1. 1 Ian

    Ricci, despite his spectacularly unspectacular playing style, had the raw skill to take advantage of his strengths. Mucking it up along the boards, parking himself in front of the net, hounding an opposition player to force a turnover. It takes real hockey sense to do that.

    Guys like Brindamour and Holmstrom fit that mold too, but have a little better offense than Ricci ever did.

    I think it was the fact that he looked like a Neanderthal out there on the ice that amplified his contributions. It’s hard not to cheer when somebody is obviously working really hard, and then gets rewarded with a rebound goal, or a good clear on the PK.

  2. 2 alanah

    Great post, Mike. My favorite players tend to be the Mike Ricci -types in general. Not always flashy, but always willing to leave everything on the ice.

  3. 3 Mike Chen

    Alanah, admit it — you just think he’s hot.

  4. 4 Frisby

    Hey, Mike, just wondering if you heard this news yet?

  5. 5 Mike Chen

    Frisby, yes I did. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing but I’m going to reserve judgment until it actually comes out. With the way Hollywood works these days, it may never even get into the production stage.


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